Libby McGill and Stacy Knowlton do more than hand out Band-Aids and soothe tummy aches. They help save lives.
As school nurses for Auburn City Schools, McGill and Knowlton make sure students are able to get through every school day safely, and assure parents that if something does happen to their child, they will be well-taken care of.
“People have no idea, probably, out in the public, what we do every day,” McGill said.
McGill is the school nurse at Ogletree Elementary School, which teaches students in grades 3-5. Knowlton is the school nurse at Auburn Junior High School, which teaches eighth- and ninth-graders.
In addition to keeping children healthy and well on a daily basis, they are responsible for creating step-by-step healthcare plans for students with certain
health conditions, such as asthma, and letting teachers and staffers know what to do if one of those students suddenly has trouble breathing. They work with a student’s parents and doctors to come up with the healthcare plans.
“Each teacher that has that student will need to know their health condition and what they need to do if that health condition happens in class,” Knowlton said.
They also train teachers and staffers on how to use medical equipment, such as automated external defibrillators, and how to administer certain medications such as Narcan and epinephrine, and keep parents and doctors informed about students' conditions.
“It’s a school, but it’s a community, and it’s a building of trust,” said Brenda Lindahl, ACS nurse administrator. “Pulling those two together is a big part of school nursing.”
ACS services roughly 9,000 students in grades K-12. It has 19 full-time nurses and 12 substitute nurses.
There are 13 schools in the district. Each school has at least one school nurse. Some have two, depending on the size.
“Numbers and health acuity, the two go side-by-side,” Lindahl said.
The nurses see anywhere from 30 to 40 students a day, sometimes more.
Knowlton takes pride in the fact she is able to care for people’s children and give them a sense of security. McGill likes knowing what she does every day makes a difference.
“I look forward to going to work every day,” McGill said. “It is kind of like a little triage station, like a little mini-ER.”
No two days are the same.
The women have treated students with common colds and headaches to students with more serious health conditions such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, Crohn's disease, diabetes, cancer and seizures.
McGill recalled the additional support she provided to a fourth-grader after he was diagnosed with diabetes.
“He was quickly able to get a pump and continuous glucose monitor and just did excellent with that,” McGill said. “We worked through communication and him standing up for himself and being his best advocate, recognizing the symptoms. All those kinds of things.”
Lindahl said one difference between school nurses and hospital nurses is that school nurses allow more input from a student’s parents when it comes to their care, unlike hospital nurses who are working under a doctor’s orders. That can be very comforting.
“We do work under the Nurse Practice Act with orders, but we also have a big input (from) the parents: How do they care for that child? How do they lay them down for their nap and what kind of position? What do you do when they get upset and cry?” Lindahl said.
“We want to hear what they have to say 'cause we want them to know that’s important and we’re going to do the best we can to do it in the schools. And that builds trust.”
Another thing that builds trust is staying connected and having an open line of communication with parents. McGill, for instance, spoke frequently with the mother of the fourth-grader with diabetes.
“(I was) reassuring her that we were willing to adjust or do whatever to make his day best and so that he could function,” McGill said. “He was in my office a decent amount if his blood sugar dropped.
“The communication, care and empathy with these parents is what’s huge."
School nurses can also be vital when it comes to mental health. Some students who may not be comfortable going to a teacher or counselor may come to the nurses office because they see it as a safe space. Knowlton has treated students who have engaged in self-harm, had suicidal thoughts or who have overdosed.
“I’m not always sure why but I think it’s the genuine compassion a school nurse has, they have a tendency to feel they can talk to you,” Lindahl said. “We always point out to them, ‘What you say to me, I’m hearing you, but if in any way I think it’s harmful to you, I’m going to have to tell someone.’”